Meet Elise Damas

CARECEN’s Director of Pathway to Citizenship reflects on the impact immigration lawyers have on immigrant lives.

by Sarah Javors

The life of an immigration lawyer, at least in Elise Damas’ case, seems to be a 24/7 job. Yet this is the path that she chose for herself. She has a vivid memory of sitting in her parents minivan at the age of 7 and asking her mom, “What are the two best professions and two best universities?” “Doctor and lawyer, and Harvard and Yale,” her mom replied. After some serious thought, she realized she didn’t like the sight of blood but did like arguing, and decided then and there to become a lawyer.

She actually stuck with it.

“It was like the childhood dream I just never outgrew,” she said.

Elise Damas works for CARECEN, an organization that provides legal services to immigrant committees in Nassau and Suffolk counties, as an immigration lawyer. Her work brings her into the lives of many refugees coming to Long Island, fleeing from something that many prefer to leave in their past.

As she grew older she realized that her childhood dream aligned with her “view of the world” and so she continued to pursue that goal, receiving her JD at Hofstra Law in 2012 as the Dwight L. Greene Scholar.

“I have been blessed and lucky to be born into a family that was extremely supportive of me and receive an education really beyond what so many other people are able to receive world wide. Given that, it is my responsibility to extend a hand and help those who haven’t been afforded the same opportunities,” Damas said. Over the course of her life, she’s lived in many different countries and cultures around the world from Poland to rural Mexico. These experiences cemented her desire to work as an immigration lawyer.

Damas protesting one of President Trump’s visits to the Long Island area. (photo courtesy of Elise Damas)

While at Hofstra law, Damas was selected to work at the Hofstra Asylum Clinic. This clinic, run by professor Lauris Wren, takes eight students a semester to represent immigrants escaping their countries before asylum officers, immigration judges and the board of immigration appeals. These cases are some of the toughest to crack given the strict nature of the requirements to qualify for asylum.

Her first “real” case in the asylum clinic saw her representing a Salvadoran man fleeing from gang violence with his wife and two young children after his wife witnessed a gang murder. Though witness protection looked out for the family at first, they were alerted that this protection would end when the case did, which placed a target on their backs and forced them to seek asylum in America. Damas worked on the father’s case and said, “Winning asylum for the husband was really saving the lives of all four family members.”

Jenny Chevez Kessinger, an immigrant from Nicaragua, first met Damas at the Hofstra Asylum Clinic in 2010. The two reconnected a few years later when CARECEN was expanding and looking to hire in the new (at the time) Pathway to Citizenship program. Damas and Kessinger worked together, just the two of them, to get the program off the ground. “We had to look for teachers, look for paralegals and then it got bigger and bigger,” she said. At the beginning of the program they canvassed around in different communities to let people know that CARECEN offered the legal services for free.

In that first year, the duo were tasked with helping 250 people apply for citizenship. By the end of that year, that number had grown to 427 people. Now, with four years under their belts, CARECEN’s Pathway to Citizenship program helped nearly 4,000 people apply for US citizenship.

Many immigrants come to the country with a head full of questions about the road to citizenship. Damas and her colleagues not only provide legal advice but calm their client’s fears. “If she doesn’t have the answer, we look for the answer. We are there for the community, to help them as much as we can. If we cannot help them we try to look for another resource,” Kessinger said.

Clint Nada, a long-time client originally from Sri Lanka, met Damas through the Pathway to citizenship program when his wife was applying for U.S. citizenship. She helped him apply for his permanent residency, something they usually don’t do, but she checked over to make sure all the documents were good. “Immigration applications could be long and I can’t miss anything, so it was very helpful that she took a look through it,” he said.

Three years later when it was time for Nada to apply for citizenship, he reached out to Damas again for her help.

The citizenship process is a long, hard and expensive road, especially for low income families and individuals. The application costs $725, which means people often have to choose between paying rent that month or applying for citizenship. CARECEN charges nothing for their legal services and about 75 percent of their clients qualify for a fee waiver, which saves the clients a lot of money.

The work Damas does has a life-changing effect on the lives of her clients, “The most fulfilling part [of my job] is looking at a person with their U.S. passport or certificate of citizenship and knowing that their life has changed,” Damas said. “Knowing that they don’t live in fear, that they see their lives in a completely different way, that they are as much a part this country as I am having been born here. Seeing that glow on their face that reflects happiness and security and the pride of being a U.S. citizen.”